THE BIG BOSS (1971)
(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary Hong Kong Legends DVD)
On July 20th 1973, a death sent shock-waves through the worlds of cinema, martial arts and beyond. It was the tragic sudden death of Bruce Lee, who at only 32 years of age had already become the first global Asian superstar after just four completed films, only one of which had even been made by a Hollywood studio. Bruce would go on to provide an awe-inspiring legacy of influence to this day. He was a hero to an entire oriental culture who had no modern heroes. His life integrated the highbrow development of the spirit through eastern philosophy as well as popularising martial arts to the masses from western film stars such as pupils James Coburn and Steve McQueen to Miss Piggy, the Osmonds, comic books, music and more. He has become one of the most famous and important role models in the world.
Lee Jun-Fan (his Cantonese birth name) was the son of Lee Hoi-chuen a famous Cantonese opera and film star in 1940. He was born in San Francisco but the family relocated to Hong Kong when he was a child. His name’s meaning of ‘Return again’ was given to him by his mother as she felt he would return to the States later in life. This he did, but not till the age of 18 after an eventful childhood. The circumstances of his leaving were controversial. Despite an extensive child film acting career of some note, he was by no means a pampered soft child, regularly getting into street fights which developed in him a life-long taste for such combat. In 1950s Hong Kong, thousands had fled to the island from the hideous communist oppression of the mainland. This created overcrowding, which on the streets led to territorial gang battles amongst the young. The result of one such street brawl in 1959 revealed to Bruce that he had beaten the son of a Hong Kong police officer. His father gave him $100 and suggested he lay low over in in America.
Once in Seattle, Bruce applied himself diligently both to philosophy studies (where he met his wife Linda) and martial arts, setting up his own school to teach and construct his own ‘style without style’. He believed the individual’s honest expression of the human body was what counted and so Jeet Kune Do (the Way of the intercepting Fist) was born. In 1964, his jaw-dropping demonstrations of two-finger press-ups and stunning one-inch and six-inch punches at a public event got him noticed by William Dozier, producer of BATMAN and THE GREEN HORNET TV shows.
Soon after, Bruce found himself on U.S. TV playing Kato, sidekick of the latter character between 1966-67. Despite the western profile this accorded him, Bruce became dissatisfied with the limited portrayal it offered for his race and left the series. After a more truthful guest-starring martial arts role in the series LONGSTREET, he took a hard look at how to continue representing himself on screen. James Coburn advised him to forget TV as it would ‘eat up his talent’. He took the brave step of returning to Hong Kong.
Back in his youthful environment, Bruce soon struck up a profitable partnership with the producer Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest films. Here he would begin his ascendancy as a film actor in 1971 with THE BIG BOSS, a very low-budget (under $100,000) take with an incomplete script and a restrictive director Lo Wei. Bruce plays Cheng Chao-An, a migrant Chinese mainlander who seeks work in Bangkok via his family. He soon uncovers a plot at the ice factory involving the trafficking of heroin within the ice blocks and despite a promise of pacificm made to his elderly mother back home, he must fight to protect the workers and revenge his cousins murdered by the gangster business owners.
On the downside, it’s a rough movie debut to be sure and has some laughable plot flaws. Why does the oily diplomat of a manager bother to successfully bribe two of the workers to forget seeing the drug packages, only to immediately have his thugs bump them off outside? Also, the scene where Cheng sees for himself what’s inside the ice is hilarious ; aside from heroin bags, he spots glaringly impossible-to-disguise corpses stored within the blocks as well. Hardly effective secret business.
The other weakness is that THE BIG BOSS is half over before we get to see Bruce in action, when Cheng is forced to take action to defend his people against the boss’s evil minions. Until then, we have to watch him play passive and sweet with an assortment of embarrassed grins and grimaces of coiled frustration. But the action is worth waiting for. Bruce’s elastic physique, kicks and punches deliver mightily in wide shots without trick effects or annoying quick cuts. The three fight scenes he has are a great introduction to his technique for fans and show utter commitment to athleticism and purpose.
In the ending, a philosophical theme is shown here that will also become familiar through his films. As he kneels by the boss’s body, drenched in blood from the carnage, the police turn up. The female cousin looks longingly on, trying to help but Bruce allows the cops to take him; he knows that all violence has consequences. A price must be paid for the taking of life, no matter how righteous it may seem (or how cool it looks).
As his character is calmly led away in a long shot, Bruce Lee’s movie career was about to explode with unprecedented consequences of a far more positive kind…